Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ness-ness


My favorite suffix in the English language is -ness.  Since our language was in its Germanic infancy, some kind of -ness has been used to turn things (usually adjectives) into nouns. The -ness suffix is one of many little game-changers and word-makers that help give English its flexibility, potential creativity, and seemingly never-ending productivity.

Here is -ness in the OED:
Forming abstract nouns from adjectives, participles, adjectival phrases, and (more rarely) nouns, pronouns, verbs, and adverbs.The following are examples of some distinctive nonce-uses of the suffix since the 19th cent.
1804    S. T. Coleridge Let. in Lit. Remains (1836) II. 414   The exclusive Sir-Thomas-Brown-ness of all the fancies.
1853    ‘G. Eliot’ in J. W. Cross George Eliot's Life (1885) I. 319   Dislike-to-getting-up-in-the-morningness.
1859    G. A. Sala Gaslight & Daylight iv. 43   An irreproachable state of clean-shirtedness, navy blue-broadclothedness and chimney-pot-hattedness.
1901    Academy 8 June 495/2   Southport, with its sponge-cakeyness and school-girlism is surely worth study.
1949    P. Grainger Let. 23 Nov. in All-round Man (1994) 240   You are a love-child moving towards art. I am an artist moving towards love-child-ness.
2000    Guardian 24 Mar. (Review section) 21/1   The numbskulled singalong-ness of Oasis.
As the OED mentions, these examples are all post-1800.  I think the 19th century must be when -ness really came into its own. In fact, English language productivity was at its all-around highest in that century.  (If you log on OED look at the "Timelines" link.  Fascinating!)

Now for the examples.  "Sir-Thomas-Brown-ness"!  Hilariousness.  (Thomas Browne wrote rambling and ornate inquiries into how snails' eyestalks work, among other tidbits of 17th century prose. That particular appellation is not all that descriptive, but doesn't "17th century prose" just sound tortuous?)  And as for George Eliot's "Dislike-to-getting-up-in-the-morning-ness," I have once before mentioned that as one of my favorite examples of anything in the whole GD OED.  The others are fine examples too, with the exception of the music review from 2000.  "Singalong-ness"?  It's clumsy.  "Sing-songy-ness" would have been better.  Which brings me to a different point.

The suffix -ness has been abused and overused as of late.  I think it started innocently enough, being appropriated by youths to coin or re-introduce nouned adjectives such as "awesomeness," but now it's all the time popping up in commercials and TV shows, used clumsily and for humorous effect (e.g. "Family Guy-ness" on TBS).  Granted, it is a funny suffix, and there seems to be something inherently funny about changing parts of speech, especially now that constructions such as "noun of noun, noun of noun..." are rare to obsolete.  But changing the part of speech is not a joke in itself.  The -ness has to add something new to the meaning for it to really work.  And it has to sound good!  Coleridge fluently nouns the essence of a 17th century writer.  Eliot heroically nouns an undesirable personal characteristic that we still joke about today.  Their uses are unique and productive.

Another acceptable thing to do with -ness, is to distill something into a noun (rather than string-together-nouning ad infinitum).  Adding -ness to a quality possessed by a person makes it carry more weight.  Unfortunately the advert writers use this method too, to make jokes by hyperbole.  It doesn't work very well, and again they wrongly think "the clumsier the funnier."  I think the Grainger example above fits this distillation type of -ness use, though this example, like almost all the OED examples, appears to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek.  Commercials and sitcoms aren't capable of such subtlety, and by that shortcoming, as well as others, they don't let -ness do its best work.  And like so many other words, it begins to fall out of my favor because its ubiquitousness. 

I won't give up on -ness, not on a suffix with such a long and colorful history!  I am optimistic that it can be reclaimed and be allowed to do its work.  Unlike so many Old English suffixes that have left us, and so many new suffixes and prefixes from the French and Latin that infected Middle and Modern English, perhaps -ness will live with English until English breathes its last gasp.

Note: I didn't link to the OED because it "lives behind a paywall" as they say.  You have to log in through your university's library database list. The wealth of Englishness that awaits you is well worth the two minutes it takes to figure that shitz out.

4 comments:

  1. Thomas Browne (1605-82) was a SEVENTEENTH century philosopher and physician.

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  2. I updated the post. I know when Thomas Browne lived, but I wrote this late at night, so I apologize with all my heart and brain that I made an honest error. I've been reading Milton's SEVENTEENTH century prose, which I am tolerating much better than Browne's. I took a class on prose styles last year, where we read Browne among others, and all had a good laugh at the eyestalks and whatnot. He was a learned man of course, but Pseudodoxia Epidemica is pretty funny.

    I am a stickler for people knowing their centuries as well -- I hate when people say "the 1800s" instead of "the 19th century." But you should be able to tell, from the rest of this post, that I not only know my centuries, but that I'm interested enough in this English stuff that a 16th-17th century late-night mistake is probably just a mistake. Sorry I pissed you off so much.

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  3. Robyn, no you didn't annoy me so much, was half hoping you'd correct post and delete my bold lettering comment. Have seen some much worse real American howlers on Browne not made by lack of sleep! American scholarship on Browne overall is however in 20th c. simply the best! (J.S.Finch at Yale, Frank Huntley, Ann Arbor)

    But Browne is of course the supreme 17th c. prose stylist, varying from note-book jotting, encyclopaedia entry essay, ornate Discourse and self-portraiture. Milton the supreme poet to Browne's doggerel verse.


    If you check the various editions of Pseudodoxia from 1646 to 1672 you'll see he shifts from doubt about snail's eyes, to experiment and ''occular observation', to using 'exquisite glasses' to confirm the existence of snail eyes. He's up there in the vanguard of the 17th c scientific revolution, paving the way. His most beautiful prose is of course in 'Urn-Burial' and passages of 'The Garden of Cyrus' utterly gorgeous in places.

    Browne probably has the greatest number of entries of all in OED due to a vigorous neologist necessity, often scientific/medical in nature, Electrical, Hallucination, Suicide, Antediluvian, Ambidextrous, Caricature spring to mind as first usages. Let you know if i find any word which is a weird Browne -ness!

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  4. Thanks for the less-scientific Browne recommendations! I'd definitely like to know what other kinds of beautiful prose were around in Milton's England. As I'm not a student of that century, I've so far only read what I've been assigned.

    I did notice a peak in 17th C neologisms in that OED graph I mentioned. Perhaps Browne was the author of many of the entries that produced his century's word-spike.

    Haha -- sorry I didn't delete your all-caps comment, but I like to field all readable comments, even if some turn out to be from sincerely hostile bloggers. There have been some hoots.

    I'm always interested in words for the sake of words, so if you come across any Browne creations of note, I'd be happy to add them here.

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I publish all the comments, the good, the bad and the ugly. Unless I have no idea what you're saying. If you want to email me (with only good I hope), I'm at rbyrd [at] niu [dot] edu.